I was super pleased to hear that Isle of Harris were happy to collaborate with me to write a piece for International Scottish Gin Day. Their rise in the gin world is impressive and extremely notable, certainly from my perspective. Their bottle is a thing of beauty and became a statement piece from early on, definitely up there in those early defining designs that have led to such an amazing artistic element in packaging design now. I remember when it first launched, the bottle being incredibly enticing, to the point when I finally got to try it at the launch party for Gin Magazine in November 2017 And, the gin itself is a just as gorgeous, gentle, earthy, floral, fresh notes, the sweet kiss of sugar kelp lapping at the shore, an expression of the Isle they love so much.
And this is really what this article is about. Writing for International Scottish Gin Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the element of ‘the isle’ and what this means for the gin.
The Isle of Harris lies at the heart of the Outer Hebrides, off the Northwest Coast of Scotland. Although not it’s own isle (Harris shares a landmass with Lewis) it is often referred to as the Isle of Harris, due to postal codes. Harris is neatly divided into North and South parts by West and East Loch Tarbert and linked by an isthmus, which is a narrow piece of land. The ground is mostly rock, and in parts mountainous, with beautiful, white sandy beaches to the south. Harris Distillery is located in one of the larger settlements in Harris, Tarbert, which is located on the isthmus, and with this physical idea of the land, we are starting to get some of the idea behind the gin.
The rugged coast and maritime theme are obvious in the gin, with locally forward sugar kelp forming a fundamental part of the botanical mix.
The distillery was founded by Andrew Bakewell, an American who fell in love with the Isle of Harris during a visit in the sixties and wanted to create a business to contribute to economy whilst melding into the beautiful landscape that caught his attention all those years ago. Setting up a distillery is no small feat and there was various investment, including £1.5 million from the Scottish Investment Fund. The contributions to get things started already give a sense of connection to the area.
I caught up with the team at Harris to talk a little more about the close connection between the Isle and the distillery.
What first inspired the distillery?
The inspiration behind the distillery came from Anderson Bakewell who has long held a connection to the Isle of Harris through the island of Scarp. Over several years, visiting the islands, he noticed a decline in the population and wanted to do something to rectify this. And what better way than through a distillery, set to be here for generations to come. Bottling our island spirit and connecting the world to our island home with both our Isle of Harris Gin and our forthcoming single malt whisky, The Hearach.
How did people become part of the distillery fabric?
We’re known as the Social Distillery and look to involve our island community in as many ways as possible. One of our values is ‘For, With and From the Isle of Harris’ and we look to include the community by holding events within the distillery (pre-covid), attending local beach cleans and employing local men and women.
What are some Harris highlights?
There are many highlights on a trip to Harris. From the miles of golden sands and shimmering seas of Luskentyre or Seilebost and the many paths and hiking routes across our moors and hills including to the Scalpay Lighthouse or Eagle Observatory. There’s the local Harris Tweed shops in Tarbert and Grosebay where hours can be spent looking through the cloth of our island and learning the history and story behind the tweed. And we’ve a number of café’s, restaurants and hotels to sit and enjoy the best of island shellfish, a good meal or an island tipple.
Sea kelp is at the gins heart. Are there any other local botanicals that you almost went with?
With the help of our friend and ethnographic botanist Susanne Masters we explored all corners of the island for our key botanical and there were certainly other native plants that were interesting to us including silverweed, lady’s bedstraw and meadowsweet.
The cèilidh release is such a lovely idea. There’s an idea that’s historical but also so very relevant, and the bottle is a really special thing. Where did that idea come from?
Islanders love a cèilidh and the distillery story starts with a cèilidh where we invited the island to join us in celebrating the official opening of our doors. Cèilidh’s have long been a part of our island history where we invite friends and family to join us at home for a ‘cèilidh’– a social gathering with no formalities, all you need is yourself and perhaps something to drink. Stories are usually shared amongst one another and a musical instrument or two are played over the evening. There’s singing, dancing, friendship and community connection. The idea came from finding ourselves living a new normal, meaning we can’t gather with our friends and family in person and we can’t have our usually cèilidh evenings. And so, we decided to share these evenings virtually with those missing Harris or wanting to deepen their connection to the island even though they are unable to visit our island shores. Our cèilidh bottle is designed to be the perfect size to take along to such a gathering in its 350ml size
It only takes a quick rummage through the pages at https://harrisdistillery.com/pages/isle-of-harris-gin to see several projects listed under the Social Distillery banner. The distillery have been been busy ploughing time and money back into the community, and this hasn’t at all deterred from creativity, with the release of Hearach Single Malt Whisky on the cards. Although, it is worth nothing that time will tell when the spirit will be deemed fit for launch. This is a great touch as so often I see a countdown for the three year time period on a site. It’s lovely to see the priority in getting the taste right, than getting it out there. Much like everything else they do, it’s all about integrity and embracing what surrounds them.
Big thanks to the Isle of Harris Distillery for taking the time to send me some words and photos. Happy International Scottish Gin Day!